I'll read you my story, you tell me yours

The people who attended my first Travelling Book Café opened their lives to me and to each other.

My format for the afternoon was to introduce my new book, You Again, by describing what had inspired the trilogy that this novel completes; then read a bit, parts that demonstrated the themes I wanted people to pick up on, then invite my listeners to tell their own stories.

How incisive a discussion that invitation sparked. Some people I knew and some I didn't told tales of their search for identity, of waiting until  their 30's, or 40's before embracing whom they felt themselves to be; the importance of recognition or non-recognition from mothers. The talk wound around to sisters, especially those from different fathers; then single mothers and the ways they were stigmatized in the days when banks would not approve mortgages, when potential employers considered lone women with children risks instead of assets. How more than one parent had opened discussions of a daughter's future with the phrase "when you're safely married". The crowd ranged in age from late 20's to early 70's, so layers of history unfolded through the speakers.

One person told of growing up with an invalid mother who thought of her daughter as her emissary to the world. Another of how she has been looking for an image that truly reflects her since her mother rejected her when she was a child. The mother of two daughters from two different fathers talked about the sibling rivalry between her girls, how both had courted the favours of the only father who was in the picture. An actress who is caring for her dying father revealed that she cheers him up by imitating the Irish lilt of her late mother. "I have her down to a t-e-a!"

All this, and just outside the gallery where the event took place, in the Mall, a pre-Easter petting zoo attracted a different crowd: parents and kids, some sitting nicely with bunnies or guinea pigs on their laps; others standing outside the fence watching little pigs, and some fluffy headed breed of chicken, beautiful yellow ducklings, and newly hatched chicks snuffle and scratch and gaze back at the spectators with that trust unique to infants.

A few days later, it was not baby animals but the stopping and going of the #9 Broadway bus outside the window of the Heartwood Café that provided the rhythm and the potential to distract. Under the stamped tin ceiling, in the cozy front part of the café, I read the two sections I had read at the gallery, in which Annette and Elfie, (the middle and youngest of Shinny's daughters, who are nearing and midway through their 30's in You Again), contemplate their own identities and their place in the family. But I added a paragraph from the eldest daughter, Lawreen, in which she grieves for the lost identity her daughter's career as an actress had made possible:
            She swallows, works her mouth from side to side, rolls her lips together. But the tears come anyway, and since Ken is not home to ask her what’s wrong, she sits down and gives in. It’s just so stupid. She misses Mariah, her energy, her beauty; she misses the thrill of walking onto a movie set, or into a wrap party, of dressing up, of not pretending to be but actually being someone. The star’s mother, or the second-lead’s mother, or the girlfriend of the lead’s mother. Mariah has not actually needed a chaperone for years, but no one minded Lawreen tagging along. Everyone knew her, the crew, the producers, some of the regular Vancouver actors. She went from vigilant at first, to eventually relaxed, and could sip a cup of coffee and make small talk with anyone. It isn’t her life, it’s Mariah’s; she knows it’s time to back off. But she misses it. Oh how she misses it. What will she do with herself? Now her chest is tight and she’s struggling for air as if she has run a marathon. Could it be asthma?

This audience included two women who are both the middle sister of three girls, none of whom have children of their own. And a new thread unravelled from stories about how sisters remember childhood experiences as differently as if they had grown up in two different families. To conclude the evening, a writer friend, Ethel Whitty, read a section from her forthcoming novel, in which the bond between mother and daughter is expressed by the dress the mother sews for her daughter's first dance. The lyrical language itself testifies to their complicated love for one another.

The Travelling Book Café moves onto Toronto first weekend in May; Quebec in June. Have book, will travel.